In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King used the analogy of Hitler’s persecution of the Jewish people to explain his willingness to disobey unjust laws. In his analogy, he also revealed his empathy for the Jewish people and his assurance that he would have tended to their plight.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
It was not only the Holocaust but the historic persecution of the Jewish people around the world that dictated the need for a sovereign Jewish State. Dr. King knew this as well as anyone. His statement, “we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity,” spoke to an active role in Israel’s safety. From where did this brothers-in-arms mentality come? I submit it was a quintessential blending of Christian Zionism and social activism. Just as Dr. King applauded Rabbi Heschel for “refusing to remain silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows,” so was he unwilling to remain silent while Israel and the Jewish people were being physically attacked, politically isolated, and morally vilified.
So significant and effective was Dr. King’s support of Israel, that Israel’s enemies took note and lamented it. In 1993, Edward Said, Palestinian American Professor and anti-Israel activist, stated:
With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the middle ’60s – and particularly in ’66-’67 – I was very soon turned off by Martin Luther King, who revealed himself to be a tremendous Zionist, and who always used to speak very warmly in support of Israel, particularly in ’67, after the war.
In my research, I came across an article written by history professor and author Gil Troy. In the piece, Professor Troy mentioned Bayard Rustin and an organization called BASIC (Black Americans to Support Israel Committee). Bayard Rustin was a civil rights warrior and a close friend and colleague of Dr. King. Mr. Rustin was also Dr. King’s coach in non-violent protests inspired by Gandhi. Continuing Dr. King’s pro-Israel, pro-peace legacy after his death, his associates, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, formed BASIC to galvanize Black American solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people.
Until reading Gil Troy’s article, I had never heard of BASIC. The discovery was a very emotional experience for me. I was personally relieved to learn that amid the exploitation of the Black struggle for justice and the international condemnation of Israel, many Black Americans defended their heritage and stood by their Jewish brothers. They refused to forget the shared legacy of oppression and the need to band together when attacked. Though I was heartened to learn of post-Dr. King efforts like BASIC, I was also disappointed that this information was not common knowledge, especially with the global rise of antisemitism disguised as justice.
Dr. King was a doctor of biblical theology and pastor of a Baptist church. He honed his great oratory skill within the Black Church framework, he loved gospel music and his favorite singer was the incomparable Mahalia Jackson. Born and raised in the southern, Black Baptist ethic, Dr. King understood the spiritual significance of Israel, the Jewish people, and biblical Zionism. Yet, we have no record of him making a public case for biblical Zionism or arguing the validity of the State of Israel based on biblical history.
One can only surmise his reasons. Perhaps Dr. King was too wise to argue spiritual matters with those who did not share a Christian worldview. Perhaps he saw no need to preach Israel’s biblical rights to the Land when a non-religious case could be made just as effectively. Perhaps an Israel solidarity built on a Christian biblical and spiritual tradition of the Black Church had morphed into an intellectually articulated case for the Jewish State. Whatever his reasons for not quoting the Bible in his defense of Israel’s right to exist, his model is once again prophetically instructive, for there are two entirely different, yet related arguments that the Church must make for Israel—the biblical and the moral.
Israel has the right to live in peace with its Arab neighbors. Likewise, the Arab Palestinian people have the right to live free of oppression and dictatorial rule. Legitimate criticism of any government is the sign of a healthy democracy—if it is a democracy. Israel is a democracy. Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (also known as the West Bank) are ruled by leaders responsible for consistent human rights violations. Honor killings, torture, suicide bomber training for children, and religious persecution all exist in the Palestinian territories. On May 8, 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a piece entitled, Human rights complaints rise in Palestinian Territories.
Complaints of torture and other mistreatment rose by 50% last year in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, according to a report by the Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights.
The report notes, “a remarkable increase in the number of complaints received on alleged cases of torture and violations involving the right to physical safety in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
It says that 497 allegations of torture and ill treatment were received by the commission in 2013, compared with 294 cases in 2012. Most of the cases, 347, were in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian watchdog group established by the president of the Palestinian Authority 20 years ago said it had also registered a “noticeable increase” in arbitrary detentions in the West Bank and Gaza. It attributed the rise “to the political variables and the continuation of the internal political division” between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza since 2007.
Like the current leaders of the Palestinian people, former PLO head, Yasser Arafat, ruled with an iron fist. He spoke about human rights but was no humanitarian. Dr. King spoke out in favor of the well-being of Jews and Arabs as well as Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Applying his example, the Black Church should be concerned with peace for all people in the Middle East. This would include strongly condemning the human rights abuses perpetrated on the Arab Palestinian people by their leaders.
The moral case for the state of Israel, therefore, includes a genuine concern for the plight of the Arab Palestinians. Israel is the only viable democracy in the Middle East. While Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not enjoy political, economic, or religious freedom, their condition would be even worse without Israel to help care for the oppressed. Israel has a governmental and judicial system that includes Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, women, and other diverse members of society. Israel is a multiethnic, inclusive country, with a government that serves and protects its people from its many enemies.
Israeli compassion means that medical and emergency services are available to both Israelis and Palestinians. The wife of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was treated at Assuta Medical Center in Ramat Hachayal, near Tel Aviv. In 2013, Hamas Party leader Ismail Haniyeh took his granddaughter to Israeli doctors at Schneider Medical Center in Petah Tikva.
Shortly after the hospital visit for his granddaughter, Haniyeh was filmed at a rally calling for Israel’s destruction. Afterward, Haniyeh also took his mother-in-law to Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem for cancer treatment. These events occurred within seven months of each other.
Israel’s compassion and care, even for its enemies, is the type of compassion worthy of Dr. King’s faith and advocacy. For years, Israel has provided medical assistance to its enemy to the north, Syria. Engulfed in a bloody civil war since 2011, over half a million people have died— both fighters and civilians. Israel has tended to the wounded without question or discrimination. Many of the Syrians that Israeli doctors have aided would not hesitate to kill them if given the opportunity.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas and Fatah began fighting and killing each other to establish who would rule. The war was brutal and featured soldiers shooting their enemy in the knee caps and leaving them alive as a form of humiliation. Hamas won the fight and now rules Gaza. Fatah soldiers fled into the West Bank, and the wounded were treated in a state-of-the-art Israeli facility. They received prostheses that cost $45,000 per limb and rehabbed with Israeli physical therapists. “A person is a person. A soldier is a soldier. It doesn’t matter where he comes from,” said Dr. Tzaki Siev Ner, head of Orthopedic Rehabilitation at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv.
Israel is the nation that Dr. King described as an “oasis of brotherhood and democracy.” A light in the midst of darkness. Hope in a sea of despair.
Many scriptures attest to God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people and their right to the land of Israel. There is not one scripture that transferred the title of the land of Israel to the Palestinians or any other people. However, many scriptures teach us to care for the broken and defend the weak.
Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.
יז לִמְ֥ד֥וּ הֵיֵ֛טֵ֛ב דִּרְ֥שׁ֥וּ מִשְָׁ֖צָּ֖ט אַשְּׁ֣ר֣וּ חָ֑מ֑בֿץ שִׁפְ֣ט֣וּ יָ֔ת֔בֿם ִ֖רִ֖יבוּ אַלְמָָֽנָֽה:
(The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, Isaiah 1.17)
Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or the poor man. Neither shall any of you think evil against his brother in your heart.
י וְאַלְמָָ֧נָ֧ה וְיָ֛ת֛בֿם ֵ֥גֵּ֥ר וְעִָ֖נִ֖י אַֽל־וַֹֽעֲֹ֑שֹׁ֑קוּ וְרָעַ֙ת֙ ִ֣אִ֣ישׁ אִָ֔חִ֔יו אַל־וַֹחְשְׁ֖ב֖וּ בִּלְבַבְֶֽכֶֽם:
(The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, Zechariah 7.10)
The Black Church tradition is defined by concern for the broken, relief for the oppressed. Dr. King embodied these principles. Because of Israel’s outstanding humanitarian work around the world, support of the Jewish State means helping those in need—including the Palestinians. Unfairly criticizing Israel does nothing to defend Palestinian human rights. On the contrary, it only hinders the Palestinians’ best hope for real democracy and lasting peace.
As a Christian Zionist and one truly concerned for humanity, Dr. King stood with Israel and sought to relieve the suffering of the Arabs. Support of the Jewish State is not a lack of concern for the Arab Palestinians. It acknowledges that the best hope for peace in the region is a strong, prosperous, secure state of Israel.
- Be good, O Lord, to the good and to the upright in their hearts.
- And those who turn their crooked ways-may the Lord lead them away with the workers of iniquity, [and may there be] peace on Israel.
ד הֵיטִ֣יָבָה י֖הְָֹוָה לַטּבִֿ֑בִ֑ים וְלִֽישִָׁ֥רִ֥ים בְִּלִבּבָֽֿתָֽם: ה וְהַמִַּ֚טִּ֚ים | עֲקַלְקַלּבָֿ֗תָ֗ם יֽבֿלִיֵ֣כֵ֣ם י֖הְָֹוָה אֶת־צֹּֽעֲֵ֣לֵ֣י הָאֶָ֑וֶן שָׁ֜֗ל֗בֿם עַל־יִשְׂרֵָֽאֵֽל:
(The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, Psalm 125.4-5)
Dr. King’s close friend and attorney, Dr. Clarence Jones, stated on February 28, 2014:
Anybody can stand with you in the warm summer sunlight of an August summer. But only a winter soldier stands with you at midnight in the alpine chill of winter.
From the standpoint of someone who has represented the great legacy of this extraordinary man, Martin Luther King Jr . . . I say to my African American brothers and sisters . . . the time is now for every African American person, every person of stature in the African American community, to come forward and stand with Israel in the alpine chill of winter, to show that we are wintertime soldiers.
It is said that the Jewish people never forget a friend, and Israel remembers Dr. King’s steadfastness to this day. The only street in the entire Middle East named after the civil rights legend is in one of the best areas of Jerusalem, near the Prime Minister’s residence and Liberty Bell Park.
Coretta Scott King acknowledged Israel’s efforts to commemorate her late husband.
On April 3, 1968, just before he was killed, Martin delivered his last public address. In it he spoke of the visit he and I made to Israel.
Moreover, he spoke to us about his vision of the Promised Land, a land of justice and equality, brotherhood and peace. Martin dedicated his life to the goals of peace and unity among all peoples, and perhaps nowhere in the world is there a greater appreciation of the desirability and necessity of peace than in Israel.
Mrs. King remained a faithful supporter of Israel and advocated for peace in the region until her passing in 2006. In 2007, the Israelis planted a forest in her honor in the Galilee region of Northern Israel. My first trip to the Holy Land was part of the African American Pastors Tour with Christians United for Israel (CUFI) in 2012. Our tour leader, Dr. Michael Stevens, took us to the Coretta Scott King Forest.
An accurate account of history is the most effective defense against the bondage of disinformation and false narratives. As Jesus said, “the truth will make you free.” Black American leaders were historically targeted with anti-Zionist messaging by Israel’s enemies. It is still happening today. One goal of this deception is to drive a wedge between Blacks and Jews and between Africa and Israel. In so doing, Israel’s enemies seek to paint Israel as an oppressive, imperialist regime determined to rule the world. In reality, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people who were without one for nearly 2,000 years. This is the essence of Zionism—reclaiming the Jewish homeland, and it has inspired Black leaders for decades.
Civil rights legends like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin stood in solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people. They also advocated for the just treatment of the Arab Palestinian people, which included speaking truth to Palestinian leadership—not irresponsibly blaming Israel. This is the type of Zionism that has always been the mark of knowledgeable leaders in the Black community. This is the legacy of Black support for the nation of Israel, for the Jewish people, and for a strong Africa-Israel alliance. This is the truth that must be taught to young Black and African men and women. This is restoration.
Excerpted from Zionism and the Black Church: Why Standing with Israel will be a Defining Issue for Christians of Color in the 21st Century (Umndenipress, 2021). Dumisani Washington is founder and board president of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel.